Sunday, February 2, 2014

Neno erases HIV testing fears with soap

...Local NGO adopts U.S. NGO's initiative

...Gives out two tablets of soap for HIV testing

The ploy, premised on the idea of extending soap’s detergent capabilities beyond the manufacturer’s intentions and use it to ‘erase’ fears associated with going for voluntary HIV counseling and testing (VCT) in Neno district, was certainly ballsy.

But, looking back, people who came up with the idea say they are impressed with the response from community members.

“Two years ago, we had no idea that the initiative would work wonders and encourage people who were reluctant to go for VCT. How things have changed,” says Partners in Health spokesperson, Samson Njolomole.

Njolomole, who also chairs Neno District Aids Coordination Committee (Dacc), says what has fascinated district health officials and community members is the fact that the initiative was introduced just when doubts started lingering over the effectiveness of HIV awareness strategies employed between 2000 and 2010.

Not that Malawi is the first country to offer soap tablets as an incentive for people to do things they would, normally, be afraid to do. The initiative’s first shoots sprung up in the United States of America, some 12, 717 kilometres away from Malawi, where the idea was generated at an organisation called Global Soap.

Now, the shoots have grown stronger in Neno, a remote district without a tarmac road. Njolomole says the fears previously associated with the term HIV have disappeared, and the anxiety associated with an HIV+ diagnosis has largely been diluted, thanks to two tablets of soap.

“Almost every Neno resident knows about the initiative now, and the results are there for all to see. Coupled with efforts made by the Dacc, we have managed to reverse a situation that was getting out of hand,” says Njolomole.

Foam of hope

“Right now, the HIV prevalence rate for Neno has gone down from 14 percent to 10 percent. We are making headway and, while the trend cannot be attributed to the two-tablets-of-soap initiative alone, efforts like these have lifted the veil of fear and raised the hope that we can get to zero HIV-infections,” added Njolomole.

One of the women who have undergone voluntary counseling and testing, 42-year-old Ruth Chisidze, says she went for VCT because she realised that she could kill two birds with one stone.

Chisidze says she always wanted to go for VCT, but testing centres were far between. The district has 11 health centres, one community hospital at Lisungwi, and the state-of-the-art district hospital.

“So, it was a bonus for me to get the opportunity to know my HIV sero-status and, at the same time, get two tablets of soap,” says Chisidze.

She, however, feels that incentives defeat the purpose of voluntary counseling and testing and may, in the long run, “corrupt” people’s minds, inflicting damage to the national psyche in much the same way as politicians’ hand-outs.

She also claims that some people have been going for VCT more than once, lured by the prospect of getting two extra tablets of soap.

But these ‘distractions’ are like mere bubbles in an enormous sea of hope, suggests Neno’s Director of Administration, Alick Milanzi.

Speaking during the 2013 World Aids Day commemorations, which the district held on December 19 at Neno Community Centre Ground, Milanzi was sure that initiatives put in place by stakeholders had helped district officials achieve their “general goal” of stemming the district’s HIV infection rate.

“To say the truth, HIV and Aids remain the biggest challenge to development endeavours here, especially because Aids-related illnesses continue to eat into the fabric of Neno society. More so because youths, who are the most productive age group in the country, are the worst affected,” says Milanzi.

Milanzi says youths aged between 18 years and 30 years are the most affected, a development he attributes to the construction of a railway line. Neno is one of the districts benefitting from the Nacala Corridor Railway Development.

“We have seen youths from various parts of the country flock to Neno between 2012 and 2013, and this is because of the railway project. This is a challenge to us because unprotected sex and other behaviours may contribute to rising HIV infection rates,” says Milanzi, pinning his hopes on organisations working in the district.

Some of the organisations working in HIV and Aids service delivery include Partners in Health, World Vision International, National Association of People Living with HIV/Aids, and community-based organisations.

Milanzi says district officials now want to take care of the population living positively with HIV and Aids, apart from scaling HIV prevention efforts. At least 6000 people are on Anti-retroviral drugs.

Dim prospects

But, just when the HIV mist was clearing out, one of Neno’s most influential traditional leaders says things are about to get worse.

In fact, not only does Senior Chief Symon fear for the future; he curses the “luck” of the railway construction project in the district, saying it may leave more social victims than beneficiaries of economic returns when all the work is over.

Kubwera kwa chitukuko cha njanji chimenechi kwabweretsa mavuto mdera langa. Anthu amenewa (okonza njanji) abweretsa ndalama zambiri ndipo ana athu aakazi akukanika kudzisunga akaona ndalama zochuluka zedi. Ndikunena pano, pa Zalewa pokha pali amayi osiyanasiyana ochokera m’maboma monga Mchinji, Salima, Nkhotakota, Dowa, Dedza, Zomba, Chiradzulu, Thyolo, Mulanje. Iwowa atsata ndalama zomwe zikupezeka zambiri tsopano (The railway project has brought about morality problems among my subjects because the construction workers have wards of hard cash on them. Our women are finding it difficult to resist such temptation. As a result, we have seen Commercial Sex Workers from districts such as Mchinji, Salima, Nkhotakota, Dowa, Dedza, Zomba, Chiradzulu, Thyolo, Mulanje arrive here. They are after the readily-available cash here),” said symon.

Symon says he is disappointed that, just when the HIV situation was about to improve, a dark cloud now hangs over Neno. For lack of a better term, he describes it as “The curse of human beings”.

What is “The curse of human beings”?

“As with all human affairs, there are those who are good-humoured and tolerant of change, while others remain intolerant and snobbish; I mean, those who take note only when things annoy them or take a bad turn.”

And the people of Neno are not an exception!

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